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Emerald Article: Customer relationship management in higher education:
Using information systems to improve the student-school relationship
Elaine D. Seeman, Margaret O'Hara
To cite this document: Elaine D. Seeman, Margaret O'Hara, (2006),"Customer relationship management in higher education: Using
information systems to improve the student-school relationship", Campus-Wide Information Systems, Vol. 23 Iss: 1 pp. 24 - 34
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management in higher education
Using information systems to improve the
Elaine D. Seeman and Margaret O’Hara
East Carolina University, Winterville, North Carolina, USA
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to explore customer relationship management (CRM) in a
higher education setting.
Design/methodology/approach – The development and implementation of a CRM project in a
state community college was examined as were the beneﬁts realized by implementing CRM. As
colleges increasingly embrace distance learning and e-business, CRM will become stronger and more
pervasive. Viewing students as customers provides a competitive advantage for higher education and
enhances a college’s ability to attract, retain and serve its customers. Semi-structured interviews were
conducted with individuals involved with the planning, development and implementation of a
statewide CIS system. Student support personnel were additionally interviewed.
Findings – The beneﬁts of implementing CRM in a college setting include a student-centric focus,
improved customer data and process management, increased student loyalty, retention and
satisfaction with the college’s programs and services.
Research limitations/implications – The entire community college system has not implemented
the project. Rather, only the phase one colleges have implemented at this juncture.
Originality/value – Viewing students as customers provides a competitive advantage and enhances
a college’s ability to attract, retain and serve its customers. As colleges increasingly embrace distance
learning and e-business, CRM will become more pervasive.
Keywords Customer service management, Higher education, Students, Relationship marketing,
Colleges, United States of America
Paper type Case study
In this dynamic, competitive environment the future success of educational establishments
rests on their ability to differentiate themselves and build meaningful relationships not only
with existing students but with potential students as well. To achieve this, internal systems
need to be maximized to their full potential through the integration and use of internal CRM
which can pull together disseminated pieces of information from all types of databases and
sources (King, 2005).
Customer relationship management (CRM) is a set of practices that provide a
consolidated, integrated view of customers across all business areas to ensure that each
customer receives the highest level of service (Karakostas et al., 2005; TDWI Industry
Study, 2000). CRM enables an ongoing one-to-one relationship with the customer.
When relationship management is enhanced by technology, a “seamless integration of
every area of business that touches the customer” is provided (DCI, 2004). In higher
education, students are the customers; some areas that touch the students are the
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Vol. 23 No. 1, 2006
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registration processes, transcript services, career counseling and academic support
Graduating high school seniors today have a wide variety of choices in higher
education; competition for their business is keen, especially in a tight economy.
Students can choose four-year colleges, technical schools, or community colleges in a
face-to-face or online learning environment. While the academic reputation of a school
is a major factor in determining its selection, other performance indicators that
prospective students may examine include pass rate of licensure examinations,
improvement in critical thinking and communication skills, alumni satisfaction with
their college experience, and the percentage of graduates who ﬁnd employment (Cleary,
Satisfaction with the college’s programs and services is also a critical performance
measure. CRM can play a signiﬁcant role in this area. While being able to obtain
information about a course prerequisite or a schedule listing is not germane to the
student’s learning, it is nonetheless an integral part of the college experience. Most
students view administrative activities as a necessary evil; thus, an information system
with an enhanced CRM initiative that provides an individualized fast-track to
completing these activities can be a strong incentive for selecting a particular institution.
In this paper, we ﬁrst deﬁne customer relationship management, discuss how
technology facilitates CRM, and explain its place in higher education. We then offer a
brief history of the community college system and explore the concept of students as
primary stakeholders. Finally, we examine the life cycle of an actual CRM project in a
state community college system.
CRM has been described as “a customer-focused business strategy that aims to increase
customer satisfaction and customer loyalty by offering a more responsive and
customized service to each customer” (Croteau and Li, 2003). In the early twentieth
century, managing customer relationships was a fairly simple task. Merchants had
fewer customers and most were local. Recordkeeping was done in the merchant’s head or
in a simple ledger. Merchants knew who their customers were and what they wanted.
In the last 20 years, the super store concept, the internet, the rise of the suburbs, and
increased consumer mobility, have made the customer relationship more complex.
Customers had more choices and marketing needed to become customer-centric. While
information systems provided far more customer-related data, making sense of that
data became nearly impossible. Attempting to glean useful information from myriad
sources was very labor intensive. The organization needed to identify, acquire and
retain new customers, to understand what they wanted, and to develop customer
loyalty. CRM systems accomplish this task by consolidating information from all
customer touch points into a central repository accessible by all business areas.
CRM systems enable customers to interact with the business in an individualized,
need-speciﬁc manner, and include processes to bring together information about both
the customer and the business. The tasks performed by CRM systems fall into two
CRM in higher
main areas – operational and analytical. In brief, the operational side gathers data
from various touch points; the analytical systems make sense of it.
Although CRM systems employ sophisticated technology, a CRM initiative involves
more than just technology. CRM is both a business strategy and a technology-software
set. The technology and software automate and enhance the processes associated with
managing customer relationships. The business strategy positions the customer as the
focus of the organization, creating a “customer centric” orientation (Grant and
In implementing a CRM system, the ﬁrm must ﬁrst decide what information it needs
about the customer and what it will do with it. Next, it must determine how the
information is gathered, where the data are stored, how it is used, and who uses it. In
the typical ﬁrm, information about a customer might be gathered from a web site, a
physical store location, sales reports, and mail (electronic or traditional) campaigns.
Using the data gained from these customer touch points, analysts can develop a
complete view of each customer and pinpoint where additional services are needed
While CRM efforts are often daunting, the beneﬁts achieved are impressive. Firms
who successfully implement CRM systems report improved customer data and process
management, increased number of transactions and improved analysis and reporting.
Information is more timely and accurate and customer complaints are reduced
(Integrated Technologies Corporation, 2005).
CRM in education
Postsecondary schools are increasingly challenged to maintain student enrollment
levels. Enrollment management programs to market the institution are growing in
number and their efforts are paying off. While the number of high school graduates
declined in the 1980s and 1990s, university and community college enrollment did not
(McDonough, 1994). Once students arrive on campus, however, the challenge is to keep
them there. Retention activities had focused traditionally on comprehensive orientation
programs, in-depth student advising, and a variety of student-focused activities.
Community colleges in North Carolina realized that an enterprise-wide information
system, focused on the student as customer, could also enhance enrollment and
A total of 75 percent of incoming traditional-age freshman have signiﬁcant
experience with information technology (Milliron, 2001). This experience translates
into higher student expectations regarding the available technology resources.
Students expect technology to be an integral part of their entire educational process
and anticipate a higher level of access to information. From the “student-as-customer”
perspective, an educational CRM system would provide interaction with all the
traditional student touch points – admissions, registration, ﬁnancial aid, etc. –
through a single system that would facilitate a complete understanding of each
student’s unique situation (Grant and Anderson, 2002).
The community college in America – a brief history
Community colleges focus on the community and its needs and offer workforce
training, open admissions and low tuition (Phillippe and Patton, 2000). Courses offered
may be applied to a vocational diploma or associate degree, or transferred to a
four-year college. Other courses include non-credit, continuing education courses in
literacy, basic skills and life enhancement areas. The open admission policy, low cost,
proximity, and courses offered at the community college often add up to the only
chance for many students to obtain an education.
In the early twentieth century, American leaders realized that a skilled workforce
was needed for continued economic strength and successful competition in a global
economy. However, only 25 percent of high school graduates were continuing their
education due, in part, to a reluctance to leave home for a distant college (www.aacc.
nche.edu, 2003). From this need the earliest community colleges emerged, committed to
meeting local needs through small classes, close student-faculty relations and a
program that included academics and extracurricular activities.
The initial focus in community college education was on liberal arts studies;
however, during the Depression, community colleges began offering job-training
programs. After the Second World War, the conversion of military industries to
consumer goods created new, skilled jobs. This economic transformation along with
the GI Bill created the drive for more higher education options. In 1948, a network of
public, community-based colleges was initiated to serve local needs (American
Association of Community Colleges, 2003).
Today, community colleges provide educational marketplaces where student
choices and community needs inﬂuence course offerings. Two-thirds of the
approximately 20 million students enrolling in community college courses take
courses for academic credit; the rest enroll in noncredit classes, typically in workforce
The Nort h Carolina comm unity college system
The North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) is the 3rd largest in the USA,
serving more than 750,000 students each year at the state’s 59 institutions. NCCCS is
the state’s primary provider of job training, literacy and adult education. NCCCS
provides high-quality, accessible educational opportunities that improve the lives and
well-being of individuals by providing support for economic development through
services to business and industry; and services to communities and individuals to
improve the quality of life.
Students as stakeholders
All institutions of higher education have a variety of stakeholders, and while each
institution must work to satisfy them, the stakeholder with the most inﬂuence is the
customer – the student. The typical college student makes several trips to campus
before classes start. These include one visit prior to college selection, a registration
visit and another visit to pay fees and purchase textbooks. While telephone and
web-based registration systems have alleviated some problems, students are still faced
CRM in higher
with numerous administrative tasks to be completed during their college careers. All
too often, these tasks involve considerable time spent waiting
For community college students, many of whom work full-time, these tasks can be a
deterrent to completing or even initiating their education. A CRM system can ease the
complexities of accomplishing these administrative tasks by providing a means of
anytime-anywhere registration, as well as payment, advising and requirements
checking that is individualized to meet the student’s needs.
The CRM project
By 1997, the computing system used by NCCCS, never able to adequately support the
larger community colleges, was unable to meet the state reporting requirements.
Designed to support only the administrative functions of the colleges, colleges were
using it as a management information system to support decision making. At each
college, separate databases stored employee and curriculum information. Student data
was split in two databases – one for traditional students and the other for continuing
education students. This disparate data resulted in inaccurate and redundant data and
frustrated students. Continuing education students, for example, were not recognized
as students in the college – they weren’t in the “college student” database! In 1997, a
survey of college business managers in the state showed that nearly 80 percent of those
responding supported investigating other options for administrative computing
In the sections that follow the North Carolina Community College System’s CIS
project is presented in chronological order from conception to implementation. Since
the student system is only one part of the enterprise-wide CIS, it is necessary to take a
broad view of the system’s development before returning focus to the CRM portion.
A steering committee was appointed to clarify the need for an enhanced administrative
system, establish the vision for the ﬁnancial, student, and business systems
architecture, establish the scope, priorities and character of the project and provide an
evaluation process for the project outcomes. Based on information gathered from three
focus group meetings, the steering committee developed a vision statement for the
The comprehensive, fully integrated administrative system of the twenty-ﬁrst century will
support student-centred learning, management decisions, accountability to external
constituencies, and business operations for all community colleges through a ﬂexible,
seamless electronic network that is accessible to all (NCCCS, 2000, p. 2).
A project management team composed of functional experts from the 59 community
colleges was tasked with developing a systems requirements document and
recommending an administrative system harmonious with the vision statement.
Working with functional subgroups from areas such as curriculum, faculty, continuing
education, the registrar, and ﬁnancial aid, the team formalized the overall requirements
and the steering committee issued a request for information (RFI) in early 1998. The
RFI required that vendors:
provide information on the best combination of build, buy and partner solutions;
provide information on the feasibility and estimated costs of potential build, buy
and partner solutions;
identify potential vendors/partners for subsequent Request for Bids (NCCCS,
A total of eight vendors responded to the RFI. After a formal evaluation of the
responses, the team recommended the purchase, customization and implementation of
an integrated information system that would include a student information system,
ﬁnancial information system and human resources system. In addition, the team
suggested that the system integrate and support specialized third party systems and
recommended the development of a system-level operational database and a data
In 1998, the state legislature had passed a bill that required that the colleges develop a
plan for an information system to support NCCCS processes. The plan must identify
the needs of local colleges as well as the costs and beneﬁts of meeting these needs. To
comply with the bill, a plan was developed and approved by the State Board of
Community Colleges. This plan required an information system to support the
administrative operations and the management information needs of the colleges and
the Department of Community Colleges (NCCCS, 1999). The NC General Assembly
appropriated $8 million for the 1999-2000 ﬁscal year and $15 million for the 2000-2001
A request for proposals (RFP) that outlined system requirements and speciﬁc needs
was issued to all interested venders. Their responses were evaluated and in May 2000,
a contract was awarded to Afﬁliated Computer Services (ACS) to implement Datatel’s
Colleague software and custom develop several unique applications. While the contract
included student, ﬁnancial and human resource systems, only the student system is
addressed in this paper.
The student system components included: academic records, accounts
receivable/cash receipts, campus organizations, curriculum management, degree
audit, faculty information, ﬁnancial aid, recruitment/admissions management,
registration, and residence life. Enhancements to the existing Datatel components
consisted of curriculum standards, curriculum program design and approval, program
auditing, and career planning and placement (NCCCS, 2000). In addition, third-party
products to be integrated with the Student System included an electronic
communications web portal, a bookstore system, telephone-based registration, and
several information analysis tools.
Participation by each college was essential to produce an efﬁcient and effective
system owned by all of the colleges. To ensure that the three systems would meet the
needs of all the constituents, teams for each system, along with a technology
coordination team, were assembled to provide detailed knowledge speciﬁc to their
business area. Teams included members from colleges of all sizes and with all degrees
CRM in higher
of existing technical systems. Collectively, these teams were called the “build team”
The project consisted of two major phases. Phase I included the development and
installation of the standard CIS conﬁguration at eight colleges of various sizes chosen
based on their location, commitment to the project and resource capability. In Phase 2,
half the remaining colleges would implement the project in the ﬁrst year with the
remainder rolling out the systems in the second year (NCCCS, 1999).
The template for the student system was scheduled for August 2001; full
implementation was scheduled for spring 2002. Phase I included the planning and
development of the standard conﬁguration including enhancements by the build team,
the project management team, information services staff and the vendor. Software
installation would follow with customization as required to meet the speciﬁcations of
the RFP. Migration of data from the legacy system was to follow, along with the
creation of any temporary interfaces. The vendors provided technical and user
training, and were also responsible for ensuring availability of the data needed for
standard NCCCS reports. At this point, all third-party applications would be enabled.
During Phase I, decision points and implementation processes would be recorded and
maintained for application to the Phase II implementation (NCCCS, 2000).
Following the completion of Phase I, the project management team would evaluate
the information system, and the vendor would make any required modiﬁcations to the
standard system. These changes would then be implemented and tested by the Phase I
colleges. When the standard system was in production at all Phase I colleges, Phase II
implementation would begin. In Phase II, the remaining colleges would implement the
standard system over a two-year period (NCCCS, 1999). The Phase I colleges began
implementation in July of 2001 for the ﬁnancial system and by June 2002, all systems
and components were up and running in the pilot schools (State of NC Information
Resource Management Commission, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c, 2004).
Implementation was progressing as scheduled until a disparity was discovered
between the accrual-based accounting system of the Datatel Colleague software and
the cash-based system required by the State of North Carolina (Olson, 2003). This
disparity delayed implementation of the systems in which the AR/CR issue caused
problems. The implementation schedule for Phase II was revised from two to three
college groupings of 14 (2A), 18 (2B) and 18 (2C) colleges, with the planned end date
extended to June 30, 2007 (State of NC Information Technology Services, 2004).
The Phase I colleges completed the Pilot test of the AR/CR System in October 2004
and the system and documentation were approved six months later. The Phase 2A
Student System “Go-Live” is scheduled for completion in July 2005 for all
implementation activities. The Phase 2B colleges began their initial Student System
activities in March 2005, with a planned “Go Live” scheduled for student registration in
July 2006 for the fall, 2006 semester. The Phase 2C colleges will begin implementing the
Student System in March 2006 with a planned “Go Live” scheduled for June 2007 (State
of NC Information Technology Services, 2004).
The student system as a CRM system
To support the goal of student-centered learning, the student information system
features a streamlined application process that allows anytime, anywhere registration
with a date-driven set-up to support traditional and distributed learning offerings.
Student services access is provided, and students can access and update their
information without requiring assistance or service from a staff member unless
problems arise. In addition, comprehensive date tracking maintains all history and
status changes with student records available via the web. All transactions are
immediately reﬂected in the database and in related processes (such as a student
dropping a course and immediately having ﬁnancial aid recalculated). Information
about students and employees is accessible to all functions (with appropriate security).
With the elimination of multiple databases and resulting duplicate records, the
student view is no longer fragmented across the organization. Instead, student data is
stored in one place on a single system. This data integration increases coordination
among functional areas and synchronizes processes, thereby improving customer
service. Information about all colleges can be collected and stored centrally in the data
warehouse. This central repository accommodates information retrieval and reporting
for both analytical purposes such as data mining and for operational tasks such as
scheduling and registration. All systems utilize electronic forms and workﬂow instead
of paper forms that must be carried or sent between ofﬁces. This enhanced efﬁciency
improves speed, customer service and satisfaction (NCCCS, 1999).
One pilot college’s experience
Individuals involved with both system development and Phase I implementation at one
of the eight Pilot colleges were interviewed in 2003 and 2005 after the initial rollout.
The following challenges and successes were extracted from those interviews:
The disparity in the accounting system was deemed the biggest challenge by those
interviewed. It caused the above-mentioned delays in the implementation and brought
unwelcome and extremely negative publicity about the issue, which made the job of
“selling the system” to colleagues difﬁcult. Although the AR/CR issue received the
most public attention, smaller issues such as creating the customized reports were
more challenging for some builders.
While the involvement of functional experts throughout the system added
knowledge, it was not as successful at ensuring buy-in throughout the community
college system as had been hoped. Build team members were absent from their duties
often and for lengthy periods. This separation caused some difﬁculties both for the
builders and their co-workers. Burdened with extra work and lacking in supervision
and guidance, many employees began to see the system in negative terms.
CRM in higher
This project was the largest ever awarded to ACS, and according to some team
members, this lack of experience sometimes showed. In some instances it appeared that
ACS had underestimated the complexity of the community college system wherein
each college did things somewhat differently and used varying terminology. The ACS
employees knew their product so well that they forgot that the trainees were not
familiar with the software. One implementation problem cited by team members was
that the IT employees at the individual colleges were not trained early enough. One
individual felt that the infrequent user would require lots of training because the
system was not user friendly.
Despite delays in implementation of the entire student system, student services
personnel remain excited about the beneﬁts to come. They cite the move to a student
focus as long overdue. Individuals involved with the admissions and application
processed expressed enthusiasm that students can register for classes on-line. With
students able to do business with the school when convenient for them, registration
personnel expect the students to be delighted with the new system.
Counsellors see convenience as the greatest student beneﬁt. Although the system
requires marketing to the non-traditional student who may not be comfortable with
computer technology, these students will beneﬁt most from the convenience of a
system that allows online transactions. For the younger students at area high schools,
the system provides a great recruiting tool. Even while recognizing the need for careful
communication, training and marketing for the new system, counsellors envision
students taking ownership of their education. With access to online curriculum sheets
and graduation checklists, scheduling and grades, students gain both control and
responsibility for their education.
Often, student services and instructional activities operate as separate entities. By
providing a common platform for customer communication and interaction, faculty
can utilize the system to access student learning proﬁles to customize student learning
or to refer students to support programs. Staff and faculty members envision using the
system to more effectively interact with and serve students or prospective students.
This paper explored customer relationship management in a higher education setting.
The development and implementation of a CRM project in a state community college
was examined as were the beneﬁts realized by implementing CRM. These include a
student-centric focus, improved customer data and process management, increased
student loyalty, retention and satisfaction with the college’s programs and services.
As colleges increasingly embrace distance learning and e-business, CRM will
become stronger and more pervasive. Viewing students as customers provides a
competitive advantage for higher education and enhances a college’s ability to attract,
retain and serve its customers.
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Elaine D. Seeman is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: email@example.com
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